United States needs a missile defense system

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (U-WIRE) — The year is 2008. In the midst of the American campaign season, the government of North Korea announces that from now on, there will be “one Korea” — soldiers are on their way to South Korea, to subdue its elected government. “This is an internal Korean affair,” the world is warned. “The first country to interfere will be attacked by a nuclear missile, with no further warnings given.” What happens next? It’s up to us to decide.
In the 1980s, President Reagan funded research for the Strategic Defense Initiative, which was intended to create a national missile defense system that could repel a Soviet nuclear strike. The program was abandoned as impractical and expensive, but now the “Star Wars” plan rises again, revived by Clinton and Congress.
The new missile defense plan — perhaps we should call it a Star Wars sequel — is much more practical than the original. The goal this time is only to destroy one or a few missiles at once, to ward off potential threats like Syria, Iran and China. Instead of a space-based network of nuclear-powered X-ray lasers, as was once proposed, the new system will use surface-to-space missiles assisted by ground and satellite tracking systems.
This new system is at least technologically feasible. And there is encouraging new evidence that the technology really works — this week, the National Missile Defense program, led by Boeing, conducted a successful test of an anti-missile system. Above the Pacific Ocean, a surface-launched exoatmospheric kill vehicle (EKV) locked onto and collided with a dummy missile, destroying it. This is only the first in a series of three tests of the system, but it is very impressive, given anti-missile systems’ poor track record. The Patriot missiles used in the Gulf War, for instance, had a terrible success rate, according to later analysis.
It looks as though, given enough time and money, we can develop a reliable system for protecting American territory from missiles. But will the system be reliable five years after it’s introduced? Scientific American recently published an article that describes several ways to thwart an anti-missile system. Some were as simple as encasing a warhead in a thermos or foil balloon.
It is possible that cheap, simple enemy countermeasures will quickly make our best-laid plans obsolete, drawing us into a sort of armors-race. This week’s test included a decoy balloon, which the EKV successfully ignored; even so, some skepticism is still called for.
If the anti-missile system can overcome enemy countermeasures, the question of whether to deploy the system — perhaps by 2005, as planned — becomes a political and military one. The above scenario is the sort of dilemma America may face in a world where nuclear weapons are widely available — someday, a country might decide to invade one of its weaker neighbors, and keep the world’s “peacekeeper” nations out by threatening attack with a single inter-continental ballistic missile. If we do not or cannot build a reliable missile defense system, then we must accept that any country with nuclear weapons can keep America’s entire military might at bay by threatening an attack against which we have no defense.
Our own atomic stockpile is probably not a deterrent against this strategy — do you believe that the American people will accept the use of nuclear weapons against enemy civilians, even in retaliation to the destruction of an American city? Some rogue nations, especially those whose leaders do not care about their own people’s lives, might be willing to bet on that question. If we want to retain the ability to intervene in other countries’ affairs, as we seem committed to doing, then we must have missile defense.
There is also the issue of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to consider. Signed in 1972 by the United States and the Soviet Union, it bans the development of anti-missile systems on the grounds that they would upset the global balance of power, making nuclear war more likely. Present-day Russia refuses to amend the treaty to allow the American NMD system to be built. But the treaty is obsolete in several respects, and should not stop us from continuing the NMD program.
First, as the Soviet Union no longer exists, the United States has no legal obligation to uphold a treaty with its successor nation. Second, the proposed missile shield will not allow America to wage a one-sided global nuclear war, as might be feared; the former Soviet nations still have far too many missiles to shoot down all at once. Petty tyrants have something to fear from American missile defense, but Russians do not. However, if there is ever talk of building a missile shield which can deflect the entire Russian arsenal, this argument can and should come up again.
Two more anti-missile tests are scheduled for completion by next July, and sometime next year the president is expected to announce whether the NMD system will be built and deployed. It remains to be seen whether the technology will work, and hopefully future tests will confirm both the NMD system’s reliability and its ability to overcome decoys. If missile defense passes these technological hurdles, we should support it, for our own sake and for those we wish to protect.

Kris Schnee’s column appeared in Friday’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology paper, The Tech.